Aristotle and Rawls on the common good

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Abstract

ARISTOTLE ON THE COMMON ADVANTAGE Can Aristotle's conception of the good play a useful role in contemporary political philosophy? The answer I will give to this question is a qualified “yes.” To defend my answer, I will compare his treatment of this subject with that of the most important political philosopher of the last century, John Rawls. Like Aristotle, Rawls puts the public good at the heart of his moral and political system, and so a comparative study of their differences should be fruitful. If I am right, Aristotle's theory of the good is not only defensible (when suitably adjusted), but provides a sounder basis for liberal democracy than does that of Rawls. I will begin with Aristotle, turn to Rawls, and then return to Aristotle in order to show the merits of his way of thinking. It is clear from the familiar opening lines of the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics that Aristotle locates the good at the center of practical thought. Every craft, inquiry, action, and decision, he says in the Ethics, aims at some good; the polis, he observes in the Politics, like every community, is established for the sake of some good. He urges the audience of the Ethics to ask: What is the good for the sake of which the political community is organized? The right answer, he argues, is that it is excellent activity of the rational soul, supported by external resources, over the course of a lifetime (NE I 10, 1101a14–16). This is the conception of the good that he thinks it would be best for all citizens to affirm and enact in their cooperative undertakings. The ideal city he depicts in Books VII and VIII of the Politics is organized around it, and that is why he restates (in Politics VII 1–3) some of its main tenets before he proceeds to the details of his design of this best of all cities. But it would be very odd to read the Politics in a way that made the good relevant to Aristotle's thinking only in Books VII and VIII.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Aristotle's Politics
PublisherCambridge University Press
Pages350-374
Number of pages25
ISBN (Electronic)9780511791581
ISBN (Print)9781107004689
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)

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